Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie

I want to catch up on my Booker blogging this long weekend, so here goes: I loved Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire. If I were a Booker judge, I’d have a hard time choosing between this and Autumnboth books that deal with the divisions in contemporary Britain, but with very different styles and strengths.

Home Fire is a reworking of the Antigone story, and Natalie Haynes’ review discusses its relationship to both Sophocles and Anouilh’s versions. I think I’ll be reading some Antigone when I’m done with the Booker list. (I swear I read Sophocles in grad school but can’t find a copy in the house). That link is all I knew about the book going in, so I was prepared for tragedy (yes) and a confrontation between the state and the individual/family/religion (yes). But Home Fire is very much its own thing and never felt like a direct retelling. I had a general sense of where it was going, but it was still full of surprises.

Isma, studying in America, and Aneeka, the younger sister she helped raise, worry about Aneeka’s twin Parvaiz, who has followed in the footsteps of the jihadi father the twins never knew. Both sisters are drawn to Eamonn, son of the Home Secretary, a man of Pakistani Muslim origins who has taken a hard line on British citizens who leave the country to fight in places like Syria.

Home Fire is maybe the most conventional of the Booker novels I’ve read so far, with fairly lean prose and a straightforward narrative (no jumping around in time, dreamy sequences, or fantastical elements). Shamsie slowly and skillfully ratchets up the tension of her plot. The narrative is third person, but each section is told from the point of view of a different character; I was a long way in before I noticed how the style subtly shifts to reflect that person’s character. Once I did notice, I thought a lot about how each person’s character–not character flaws, necessarily, but just the kind of person they were–inevitably contributed to the looming tragedy. It’s one of the ways the story’s origins in Classical drama showed up.

Politics are a big part of this story, of course, but so are young love, family bonds, secrets and betrayal. As Rosario says, it’s a novel with a message, but the characters always feel fully human, not like cardboard figures in service of the message. I cared about and sympathized with all of them. Because of the connections it draws between the personal and political, because most of its characters are young (and because it’s short and dramatic), I think it would work very well in a first-year literature class. I used to teach one that paired classic works with re-telling, and Home Fire with either version of Antigone would work well. Hmm….

Once I finished and put the book down, I had some quibbles. Sometimes coincidence propels the plot, and sometimes it seemed perhaps too sentimental or melodramatic. Shamsie has to pull some punches to make Parvaiz’s actions sympathetic. But none of that bothered me while I was reading, and ultimately I thought those qualities were deliberate, derived from the mythical source material and from the youthful, rather romantic or idealistic perspectives of Eamonn, Aneeka, and Parvaiz.

One thing in particular I’m still pondering, and if you’ve read this I’d love to hear your thoughts on it: both Eamonn and Parvaiz seem naive and sheltered, protected by the women, in particular, of their families (though also by Karamat). Their sisters are tougher, better at making their way in the world.

I haven’t read Shamsie before, but I’ll certainly remedy that now.

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9 Responses to Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie

  1. Keishon says:

    this sounds really good. Thanks for the review.

  2. Sunita says:

    I haven’t read this yet and I’ll come back and say more after I have, but I was struck by your question at the end, and I have a response (which may or may not apply to this story). Sons in South Asian cultures are little princes. Every female is expected to wait on them and support them. Sisters, mothers, daughters, wives, all of us are expected to make our male relatives’ lives easier and more comfortable. That is our role.

    When I teach gender in my South Asia classes, I talk about this, and the women always laugh and roll their eyes in agreement. The men are sometimes abashed, sometimes amused, but they don’t really disagree.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I do think that’s part of it, especially for Parvaiz (Eamonn has an Irish-American mother), and also that P is being protected from and E by his father. There’s a desire to spare the sons the violence and hard choices of the fathers’ generation which ironically (as myths go) precipitates their entry into that world.

      I also thought about (I do have ideas about this, but didn’t want to make my post endless) Rosario’s comments on Exit West and how Nadia experiments more or is more free in the West, while Saeed becomes more traditional and attached to his culture, and has a harder time adjusting. I think it’s a comment on the kind of dislocation that can lead to radicalization; for all his privilege, Eamonn can’t really figure out his place any more than Parvaiz can. Meanwhile their sisters are on the way to stellar careers. The boys are aimless and dreamy. In part it seemed a deliberate parallel between the two. Maybe this is an example of something that serves the plots and that seemed a little too neat to be plausible….

      It’s complicated and interesting. Masculinity is fraught in this novel. The fathers are not great role models, even Karamat, who really loves his family.

      It’s such a rich novel, with so much to think about.

  3. rosario001 says:

    Great review, Liz! I’m particularly interested in what you say about Shamsie having to pull punches to make Parvaiz sympathetic. I think that’s the bit that didn’t completely work for me, as I my mind sort of went all the way in the areas where Shamsie was pulling back with Parvaiz, so my sympathies weren’t as engaged as intended. I didn’t quite buy the pulled punches, I suppose.

    On the writing, I think you’re right that it’s more conventional than the others (at least the ones I read). It’s very good (I hadn’t consciously noticed how the changing styles actually reflected each of the characters, but that’s such a good point), but it feels like the writing is in the service of the story and the characters, rather than the main point (which might have been my problem with Autumn -still figuring out my reactions to that one!).

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, this was one of the places where I ended up feeling the characters were in service of the point/plot rather than the other way around. I think understanding for young men vulnerable to radicalization is important, and a lot of the way she told this story created that–his need to understand and somehow connect with his father, for instance. And I certainly could believe that some who leave European countries (or US/Aus) to join ISIS are going to be disillusioned and regret their choice. But the fact that he was never a fighter allowed him to retain “innocence” and that felt like I was being pushed into a certain viewpoint in a heavy-handed way, when most of the book seemed more subtle.

      I didn’t really think about the different viewpoints until I got to Aneeka’s section, which was so different and fragmented and I thought expressed how her grief had shattered her. And then I looked back and considered that Eamonn’s section, so much kind of dreamily romantic, perhaps reflected his character in the same way. Karamat’s had some flavour of a political thriller.

  4. I had problems with this novel, which bothered me, because I normally love Shamsie’s work. My real concern was with the character developement. I simply didn’t believe in either Eamonn or Karamat Lone. Karamat in particular I thought never got beyond a stereotype and at times descended almost into caricature. Whether this comes about because of the link with Antigone, which might also be seen as working with character types rather than fully developed individuals, I don’t know, but it did mean that I couldn’t read the events related as authentic.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thank you for commenting! Your points about Karamat, in particular, are exactly the kind of thing that didn’t bother me (much) while reading, but which afterwards I started to question. I think I was willing to buy into him because his section was last, and at that point I was really caught up in the story. If we’d seen more deeply into him earlier in the book, I might have found him less plausible.

      I think with all of these questions/qualms I had about characterization or plausibility, I was willing to give Shamsie the benefit of the doubt or the suspension of my disbelief, because I saw it as partly a mythical typology, given its roots in Antigone. But if I hadn’t known about that connection, would I have spotted it, and if not would I have been so willing to go with those elements? I’m not sure.

  5. Oh goody, I am excited to read this! I read one of her books before, and it was absolutely terrific (and gutting), and I’m always ALWAYS up for retelling of old-time myths or fairy tales or anything like that.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I really liked the way she drew on the mythical source but didn’t follow it too closely. For instance, she (like Anouilh, I think) cut out the 2nd brother, so there isn’t a literal fratricide in the novel. But then that made me think of all the ways it is “fratricidal” more metaphorically, and I came up with lots. It’s that kind of resonance that made me think this would be a great book to discuss in an undergrad English class.

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